The One Habit That Will Singlehandedly Transform Your Life
Why Journaling is the most powerful habit you could have, and how to establish it.
That’s what most of us imagine when they hear “journaling”: a teenage girl confessing her celebrity crushes to her diary, at least according to my female friends. High school boys, mean girlfriends and struggle with identity are the favorite topics.
I also keep a journal. There’s only one striking difference: I’m a 26 year old male, and I rarely have celebrity crushes.
I journal because I believe it’s the single most powerful habit a person can have.
In the Tim Ferriss Show, the host of the same name deconstructs the habits and routines of highly successful people from all sorts of fields — scientists, athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs, firefighters, authors and so on. In the early episodes, a book called the “5 minute journal” came up over and over again.
“Fuck it”, I figured. “If all these people are doing it, I might as well do it.”
The 5-minute-journal consists of five different prompts, three for the morning and two for the evening. I’ve played around with it for a while, but I really don’t like it.
While the prompts are good, I’ve always felt restricted in my expression of what I really wanted to say. I noticed myself writing down the same things over and over again. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, but if you just write down “my family and friends”, “good weather”, and “being healthy” every day, it misses the point.
You don’t reflect, you just automatically write down stuff.
It’s still better than not journaling at all, and increases awareness for the good things in life, but it doesn’t get the job done in my opinion.
Something had to change. In 2017, I bought a A5 notebook with blank pages and nothing else. And then, I sat down to write.
43 minutes later I looked up. I had written one and a half pages (five pages for normal people — my handwriting is tiny) as you can see below.
My head was exploding with insights and ideas. I didn’t know where the time had gone. I felt a strange feeling of slight exhaustion and utter calm.
I had just discovered my new favorite habit: free flow journaling.
For (almost) every day in the past two years, I spent 10–40 minutes journaling in the morning. I’ve written more than 300 pages, without lines, the equivalent of 2–3 books.
Having written those books, I’ve learned that journaling — among others — does the following things for you:
Reflection: you learn things you wouldn’t have known about yourself
Thinking about yourself is one of the most powerful weapons you can have in your arsenal. Journaling helps me question my decisions, reflect on why I behaved in the way I did, and explain larger behavior patterns in my life.
Knowing yourself empowers you to be yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t really be yourself, can you? Displaying your true self to the outside world will make you some enemies, but it’ll make you even more friends — because you will be authentic and sincere.
Reflection breeds awareness. Being aware of the patterns in your life is the first step to changing them — and journaling makes you aware. I regularly write about my dreams, my decisions and how I could have acted in a more honest, integral, effective manner.
Ideas: let them flow
Journaling is my go-to way to solve problems. Whenever we’re facing a problem in our business, I take a few minutes off and just start writing about the problem, without any agenda. After a page, you will have more insights and maybe even a solution.
The same goes for ideas: when I sit down, I usually don’t know what to journal about — I just write. By the end of the session, the ideas flow. New businesses just waiting to be founded. Suggestions how I can be more effective, or make others more effective. And, obviously, lots and lots of blogpost ideas. The vast majority of my blogposts has been written right after a journaling session — including this one.
Your mind’s RAM: free it up
Gotta congratulate grandma for her birthday. Can’t forget the milk. Oh, and I wanted to talk to my friend about that new business idea. How am I going to solve our conversion rate problem? Why does my team lose to an inferior opponent? Which leverages can I pull in the next client negotiation?
Thoughts like these go through our heads all the time. But our brain only has limited capacity.
The best analogy for this is a computer. Computers have RAM (rapid access memory), in which data is stored that needs to be accessed right away. For example, if you’re playing a computer game, the computer will load the current map into the RAM, so you don’t experience any lag.
RAM, however, is limited. Normal end user computers have 8 to 16 GB of RAM. When you compare that to the average hard drive size of 500+ GB, that’s not a lot.
The same is true for our brains. We have an essentially unlimited hard drive, but we only have a few GB of RAM: you can only juggle so many things before dropping and forgetting one.
Journaling frees up your RAM. Once your thoughts are put on paper, they do not take up space on your mind anymore.
With a clear mind, making tough decisions and solving difficult problems becomes much easier.
Picture the following situation: you’re laying in bed at night, and you just can’t fall asleep. Your mind is racing, thoughts are coming and going. It’s been over an hour since you went to bed, and no sleep in sight.
Your RAM is overloaded. When that happens, I flick on the light, grab my journal, write down whatever I’m thinking about, and go back to bed. Usually takes me five minutes to fall asleep afterwards.
Clear your mind and get a fresh start. It makes life so much easier.
The feeling of “flow”
What I love most about journaling is the feeling of “flow”. What that is has been discussed at length in thousands of blogposts and more famously in the-guy-with-the-impossible-to-pronounce-and-spell-name’s book “Flow” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).
When journaling, I completely lose track of time and have consequently (almost) missed meetings, trains, and flights. I don’t think about anything else. It’s just you and the paper.
It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world, and I’m looking to re-create it every day. Journaling is one way to get there. Other activities that get me into flow are writing, playing guitar, playing Lacrosse, and creating business cases in Google Sheets.
A few more advantages of journaling
- It’s a completely non-digital activity. No phone, no computer involved. Just pen and paper. As someone who spends the vast majority of his day in front of a computer, it’s a nice change.
- It keeps you calm in the morning. I’m able to tackle the biggest challenges (and eat the frog) in an unbiased manner.
- It records your experiences. We all tend to have a strong bias towards the positive when recalling past events. People tend to think about their time at university as the “best of their life” — not because it was, but because they only remember the awesome stuff about it. The dull hours in the library, the days spent wondering what the hell you’re actually doing here, all that disappears. By re-reading your journal, you realize that things weren’t all fun and games back then either.
- It fosters gratitude. We all (and especially we Germans) tend to take everything we have for granted, and focus on what’s not working (“the train is 3 minutes late”, “frozen broccoli is sold out again”, “1. FC Köln has lost three games in a row”). Taking a few minutes to remember in what privileged world we’re living goes a long way.
- It trains your handwriting. Might sound stupid, but handwriting is a skill that could be forgotten sooner than later, even though it has tremendous advantages.
Ideally you’re convinced now to give journaling a shot. If not, I didn’t do a good enough job of conveying my passion and I apologize for that. That being said, go give it a try anyway. 😉
“But Dom, how do I get started?”
Glad you asked.
How to establish a journaling habit in five steps
- Get a notebook. I would spending a bit more on it, since you will want to keep it for a long time, and you will be using it every day. Good notebooks aren’t expensive, so an extra 10–20 € are money well spent. But any notebook will do, lined, dotted, squared, blank, whatever you prefer.
I use a Karst Stone Paper A5 Hardcover Notebook with blank pages — it feels super smooth, doesn’t tear, you can spill coffee on it and it won’t do any damage. I just love it.
- Identify a time in which you are able to find 10–20 minutes to spare. For me, that’s the early morning, right after doing yoga and meditating for 10 minutes each. Commit to that time.
- Brew yourself a cup of coffee. One reason I think why my journaling habit is so strong is because I’ve associated it with the caffeine rush of the first cup of coffee of the day. It’s my reward for sitting down to write, and I’m looking forward to it every day.
- Write. If you don’t know what to write, you can start with prompts. A good structure that I like is this:
Part 1: quickly writing down what happened yesterday and what you’re grateful for.
Part 2: tackling one issue that you’re currently having. Could be an argument with the girlfriend, a problem at work, or an idea that you want to develop.
Part 3: focusing on the day ahead. What are you going to do?
Part 4: I always end my journaling with “today is going to be a great day”. Sounds cheesy, but it always gets me in a positive mindset.
- Do the same thing for 21 days in a row. No days off. While the common notion that it takes 21 days to build a habit isn’t exactly accurate, it’s a number of days that is achievable — nobody wants to commit to doing something for 8 months right from the start. After the 21 days, you’ll see the effects — and will hopefully hope to continue on your own.
No matter whether you’re a teenager or a thriving adult, journaling can and will change your life. In fact, I believe that journaling the the keystone habit that creates all other good habits. Knowing yourself and facing your problems are the keys to becoming a more effective person.
Because in the end, the teenage girl and the thriving adult are in the same situation — they’re both trying to figure out life.
Journaling is the best way to do that. Start today.
Here are the FSOAQ’s (the “frequently stated objections and questions”):
I don’t have time to journal.
I’m sorry to say it that way, but … shut up you little bitch. We all have 24 hours in the day. You’re just prioritizing scrolling through Instagram in bed over actually doing something for yourself. Put away that phone, grab a notebook, and get to it.
I don’t know what to write about.
See step 4 above for writing prompts. If you need more, maybe the 5-minute-journal outline is a good place to start.
You could also use my approach to blogging. When I don’t know what to write about, I just start typing “I don’t know what to write about” over and over again until I know what to write about. Sounds stupid, but it works wonders sometimes.
Can I journal digitally?
No. We type way faster than we handwrite, and that hinders the flow of our thoughts. By actively slowing down, you will have a whole new range of ideas. Plus, you’re spending less time in front of a screen, which is always a good idea.
What type of pen do you use?
Right now, I use a marketing gift ballpoint pen from one of our clients. It’s not high-end, but I like the way it writes. If you have a recommendation for a great pen, please let me know. I’m always in the market for good tools.
But again, remember — use what works for you. Some people like pencils better, and my father refuses to write with anything but an ink pen.
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